Firstly, apologies to those asking where the blogs posts have gone. I took a break over summer for a number of personal reasons, but getting back into the swing of it now.
I’ve been saying for a while that the best way to approach the concept of meaning is not to ask questions about it in the abstract, but phenomenologically i.e. what does the experience of meaning actually feel like? What’s it like when someone says something in a meeting that you immediately connect with? When you’re in a training environment and your brain puts two and two together to reveal a life-changing truth? When you’re in a group workshop that everyone is fully engaged in and contributing to?
One way to get at this is to use examples that don’t at first seem to have anything to do with meaning or work, then apply them back. My favourite example is the feeling of becoming “unlost” – when you’re wandering aimlessly round back alleys then come out onto a main street that you recognise. When you’re down the back alleys, your mental map isn’t connecting with what your body is seeing; when you come out it’s not just that the connection is restored, it’s that your mental model has been upgraded to include information about the new places you’ve just explored. This to me is what “aha” moments feel like in meetings – new information from the speaker connects with old information in my mental model. It feels great.
Then a couple of weeks ago I had one of those moments of panic when you can’t find your wallet and start working back in your mind to where you may have left it. I found it in the end, but it struck me that this was the same “meaning” feeling but in reverse. Rather than experiencing a sudden connection that was enriching my mental model, I was experiencing a sudden disconnection that was dismembering it. I tried to rebuild the connections from model to experience to figure out where it was, but just couldn’t come up with anything.
The point is, the opposite of meaning is not meaninglessness. The appropriate response to meaninglessness is apathy, but I don’t feel apathetic when I’ve lost my wallet, I feel deeply uncomfortable. The opposite of meaning is not just feeling lost, but feeling lost when I really need to be somewhere. It’s listening to someone talk in a meeting, and realising not just that I have no idea what they’re talking about, but that I might be judged on that account. It’s saying what I believe to be the case and being constantly contradicted, without really knowing why.
I’m not sure there’s a word for this – maybe there ought to be one. Meaning matters, but the opposite of meaning matters even more.
Image: Nishan Bichajian (c) MIT Creative Commons